America’s Oldest Problem

It’s too bad Michael Dawson isn’t a better writer—or that the University of Chicago Press didn’t provide him a better, more aggressive editor. That, at least, might have made this book less of a slog. Instead, the book is turgid, larded with the jargon of academic political science, and, in the end, not terribly enlightening.

Dawson’s thesis, simply put, is that injustice persists in American society—injustice especially having to do with race, but also with economics and class—and that a revived and revitalized “black politics” is indispensable to the righting of this injustice. Black politics he defines as “African Americans’ ability to mobilize, influence policy, demand accountability from government officials, and contribute and influence American political discourse, all in the service of black interests.” But it isn’t black interests alone that are damaged by injustice or would be served by a new black politics, Dawson says. Other groups—Hispanics, Asian Americans, the poor, even the diminishing American middle class—are also affected and would be helped, as would the larger American project of creating “a just democracy.” A new black politics is needed not just for blacks, he says, but for all who value justice and genuine democracy. Why? Because “black political movements historically have formed a leading edge, in many eras the leading edge of American democratic and progressive movements.”

There can be no disputing that inequality, especially along racial lines, persists in America. Dawson devotes a substantial part of a chapter to charting and explaining the inequalities between blacks and whites—in rates of poverty, income, unemployment, imprisonment, and other measures of economic and social progress—or regress. It bears mentioning that virtually all his data are from before the financial crash of 2008, and that these gaps have generally grown larger since then.

For example, in July the Pew Research Center published an analysis of 2009 data on the effects of the financial meltdown on wealth. “The median wealth of white households,” it said,

is twenty times that of black households and eighteen times that of Hispanic households...the largest [gaps] since the government began publishing such data a quarter-century ago and roughly twice the size of the ratios that had prevailed between these three groups for the two decades prior to the Great Recession that ended in 2009.

What’s more, the center found that

the bursting of the housing market bubble in 2006 and the recession that followed from late 2007 to mid-2009 took a far greater toll on the wealth of minorities than of whites. From 2005 to 2009, inflation-adjusted median wealth fell by 66 percent among Hispanic households and 53 percent among black households, compared with just 16 percent among white households. As a result of these declines, the typical black household had just $5,677 in wealth (assets minus debts) in 2009, the typical Hispanic household had $6,325 in wealth, and the typical white household had $113,149.

That’s just one indicator, but numerous others covering many facets of America’s social, economic, and political life could be adduced.

For Dawson, such inequalities are, by themselves, evidence of racial inequity, that is, racial injustice. Such enormous cleavages could not exist in a truly just order. The notion that there could be explanations for these inequalities apart from consciously fostered injustice would likely be rejected by Dawson. Rather, he might say such an idea is part of the “neoliberalism” he blames for the emasculation of black politics and the persistence and even deepening of black disadvantage. “One’s life chances are still on average, especially for the poor, disadvantaged by being black,” he writes.

Neoliberalism, which he uses as an epithet from the beginning but does not get around to defining with any precision until well over a hundred pages into the book, is the great bugbear for Dawson. It is the seductress that has captured the souls of black politicians such as President Barack Obama, Newark Mayor Corey Booker, and, until late in his career, former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin. It offers the illusion of a postracial, “technocratic” type of governance in which “rationality” is the standard for judging policies and such crass considerations as group interests—especially black interests—have no place. All of this, Dawson says, keeps whites from knowing the truth about the “racial order” that continues to prevail in American society—an order that favors whites and their interests and disadvantages blacks, Hispanics, and others at the bottom of various “hierarchies.”

For reasons I never did discern, Dawson constructs much of his argument around surveys of racial attitudes at two points in recent American history: after the near-destruction of New Orleans in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures, and the election three years later of Obama as the nation’s first black president. Not just in New Orleans but in America generally, black despair over prospects for achieving racial equality was in 2005 as thick as London fog. By 2008, buoyed by Obama’s stunning victory, blacks had become positively “euphoric” about prospects for racial equality in their lifetimes.

Dawson hastens to assure the reader that this latter state of affairs was nothing but irrational exuberance. “Despite the relative euphoria understandably generated by the election of the first black president,” he writes,

the election does not signal that there has been a resurgence in black political efficacy, an increased ability of the black public sphere to influence national discourse and policy, nor a fundamental lessening of the racial conflict generated by a hierarchical racial order that continues to disadvantage black Americans, and poor blacks in particular.

(One wonders what Dawson makes of more recent findings by Pew and others that, the ravages of recession and a jobless recovery notwithstanding, blacks are more optimistic than whites about the nation’s future.)

So far, this is all diagnosis, and mostly unobjectionable. Yet, when Dawson reaches the prescription stage the book becomes hard to take seriously. His call for a rebuilding of black politics—“including its radical wing”—reminds me of nothing so much as one of those movies in which a bunch of old-timers must don their old uniforms over their expanded bellies to save the earth from an asteroid.

To be sure, there is a role for a revitalized black politics—indeed, for a revitalized progressive politics in general—but it will not be along the same lines that existed in the 1960s and ’70s. Dawson acknowledges that splits in the black community, largely along economic class lines, pose a new challenge for those who would rebuild black politics. So do the changes created by immigration, which have altered the “racial terrain” and will complicate the making of some of the old alliances he proposes with Hispanic Americans and Asian Americans. His reliance on “the usual suspects” gives Dawson’s prescription an air of fatuity. But when he talks about rebuilding black politics, about using “outside funds—from the stimulus package, reparations, or other sources,” he goes from fatuous to pure fantasy.

It’s a new world out there, even though America’s oldest problem—race—persists. If it is to be solved or ameliorated it will take new thinking. Regrettably, that’s not what Dawson has given us in this book.

Published in the 2011-11-18 issue: 
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